“What Is My ‘Race’?: Being Multi-Racial In America

I began writing this post about three months ago. It fell into that abyss of drafts, unfinished projects. Today, I attended a webinar presentation sponsored by NTI-National Mental Health Training Institute. It was because of an excellent presentation by Tony Hynes, M.A., a Training Specialist, that compels me to finish what I had started. So, here’s a little food for thought, that hopefully leads to brave conversations.

In the past, the prevailing advice for parents who adopted children of a race or culture different from theirs was to love and raise them from a “colorblind” perspective, as if the races and cultures of the children were not an important part of their identities. But
adults who were raised with this approach and other experts say that when parents ignore their child’s racial and cultural origins, the journey to a healthy identity can be lonely, confusing, and even traumatic. Understanding and acknowledging differences in race and culture and playing an active role in creating a home and family life that reflect your child’s heritage are critical steps in parenting in diverse adoptive families.

FACTS:

Until 1967, when a federally overturned ban existed for multi racial marriages and relationships between white and non-white individuals, most states had already banned these relationships. A little historical fact: My ex-husband, a Virginia native, Caroline County, had a cousin, Mildred, who was in love with a man named Richard. Her lineage was, and still remains, the Jeter- Johnson family. Family reunions are still held in Bowling Green, on the other side of Aberdeen Proving Grounds, every year. And, oh, the May flies!

They wanted to get married in Caroline County. When found out that she was black, though fair-skinned, and he was white, they were refused. It was illegal in that state, yet most knew that in that county, there was a large group of people and families of mixed ancestry, black, white and native American. So was she. It didn’t matter. They were determined to marry. So, they traveled out of the state, more North, and married. Returning to Virginia, they were arrested for it was still illegal, even if married in another state. These two took their case all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and won that right to be recognized as  married couple. They were Mildred and Richard Loving[Loving v. Virginia], who produced biracial children.

Research has shown that children with a true multiracial or multicultural identity generally grow up to be happier than multiracial children who grow up with a “single-race” identity. Multiracial children in divorced families may have greater difficulties accepting and valuing the cultures of both parents.

When parenting a multiracial child in a multiracial family household, the  child[ren] need to be similarly prepared for a deeply race-based world. They, too, may struggle with their own identities, and need to be securely grounded in the fact that their cultural background is two-fold. Therefore, early on, surround your children with elements of both cultures or ethnicity. If the racial identity is a mixture of black and white, then in order for him or her to develop a healthy sense of self, and feel an inherent sense of pride in both parts of who they are, they need to see both sides[and in full regalia].

For parents in multiracial relationships, once there are children, although your child is part black and part white, wherever you go, you will be regarded as ‘that’ family. If your children look more white, they are assumed as such….that is until a ‘black’ parent is there, and your child refers to that parent as ‘mommy’ or ‘daddy’ . It will be at that point that your children will be considered black. It won’t matter the skin tone.

My daughter, fair complexion or light-skinned, is married to my son-in-law, a white man. Married for 13 years now, they have two adorable children. The oldest, a 4 year old girl, has blue eyes and blonde curly hair. Her son has light brown eyes, and same color and hair texture.  To any stranger, both children would be perceived as white children. But when they are seen as multi-racial, they will be categorized as black-which historically, has been the default of anyone with 1/16th percent of black blood.

This determination[eventually codified] was first made during and immediately after slavery, when white men would ‘take’ enslaved black women at will. So many times, these encounters produced a child. Designating a child’s race influenced the privileges afforded in life, and many of those privileges were actually legal and civil rights. Blackness was cause for denial of those rights.

This was white people’s chosen solution for dictating one’s ‘station’ in life. The social climate was created so that only whites received respect, could move about without restrictions, and by whiteness alone, opportunities for upward mobility. Solely because of a person’s whiteness, one was given ‘privilege’. On the other side, if discovered any African lineage, one was then subject to answering to white people’s dehumanizing treatment. This was how black people were ‘kept in their place’, under the fabricated illusion of white supremacy., created in order that blacks could never aspire to being truly free, self-determined or achieve full rights of citizenship in America. Whether you ‘choose’ to believe it, this is verified and documented truth in our history never taught.

A child of mixed lineage faced a wide range of treatments from whites. Mobility, access, opportunities and societal privileges [equity] was left at the whim of EVERY and ANY white person. And, this was all legal. They would be forced to live in predominantly black communities, live in poverty, or at best,  racially-mixed neighborhoods, independent of income bracket-the wealth status of the family. That was/is race in America.

With a child of mixed lineage, which most of us all share in our bloodlines, although they may not be told explicitly, they can begin to dislike a critical part of who they are, especially when these messages are everywhere they go. Is it fair to allow your child to grow to hate a part of themselves? Will you allow society to cripple your child in such ways? Most parents, biological or adoptive, want their child to grow self-assured and confident.

For multiracial children, in particular, in the 21st Century, there are a number of issues with that reality. Racism and racial views can dangerously become internalized. I would like to think that, for blacks, it was a survival strategy that has persisted over generations.

Must a multi-racial person have to choose to identify as either white OR black, one OR the other? If not, they will have no other box to check except ‘other’. That implies being ‘an outsider’.  Why must they be labeled, no matter how they identify? These children are certainly beautiful children, and are representative of what some consider the ‘best of both worlds’. Shouldn’t they be allowed to celebrate both, without denying one or the other part of their identity? Certainly, the answer is yes. This society lacks the language or space to compartmentalize or reckon itself with this ‘hybrid’ model, even though it is not a novel one.

girl eating watermelon

Your child is neither all white nor all black. Society dictates that choices must be made. What do you choose? It is easier to choose for your child and declare that your child is white. If she looks white, and no one knows to question her racial identity, life in America at least will be ‘easier’. White, as the power wielders and the default American, means that less challenges and barriers will come her way. 

But, when ‘white is your choice, and your child will be socialized as a white person, what does that mean if you are the black parent? What happens is that denying or rejecting her blackness, will send the message that being black is bad. Thus, your child is internalizing a hatred for who she is in part. She will spend a lifetime disliking anything black. Will that include you, as her parent? Within her soul, she does not know why. What she will know is that it was you, the parents, who led her to believe a lie. Once again, she wonders why. Why would you do that to her, your child? What is it about HER that you dislike so much that you would deny her access to the ‘whole’ lovable, worthy human being that she is?

 

So, what is race anyway?

Race, culture, and ethnicity are terms that we often confuse; we think they mean the same thing, but they are different.
• Race is a concept developed by society to give groups of people more power than others. Race is not based on genetics or science.
• Culture is taught to us by other human beings. Generally speaking, we learn culture by speaking with and learning from our elders, people who pass down and share information, generation to generation.
• Ethnicity has to do with nationality. A person can be classified as Asian, but that doesn’t tell us their ethnicity. Korean, Chinese, and Indian are all Asian, but all are different ethnicities.

 

Everywhere I look,   the biggest and most heated conversations center around ‘race’. In the U.S.A., Race permeates every aspect of life….most obvious for those whose race is outside of the established social ‘norm’. We debate the presence of race-based systems and structures and policies, practices and perceptions. Yet, it does exist.

For those who are ‘fortunate’ enough to live their lives absent social barriers due to racial identity, life is a freely self-determined journey. There are such freedoms that one can be themselves as they experience the expected up’s and down’s of navigating life in a democratic society. The difficulties in life are not attached to the skin they’re in. Therefore, one is led to believe that everyone’s experiences, interactions must be the same as theirs. There is no racism to you and certainly not any structural racism. So, what is all this talk about?

If indeed you believe that in this nation, there is no hint of structural racism, then, it is clearly a conscious denial. You are effectively brainwashed. What do you say or do when your child approaches you, with all innocence and sincerity, to explain conversations suggesting a ‘racially-motivated crime’ or racial injustice? What do you say to your child or yourself, when pointed evidence of injustice is almost a collectively shared view and this evidence appears with a degree of frequency?

Do you tell your child that everyone else is wrong, and then proceed with making excuses? Or do you point to the ‘accusers’ and malign them in any way? Is it that they did something ‘wrong’ or that that’s just one of ‘those people’? Do you teach and tell your child that all people are equal, deserving of respect? How about ‘the police are your friend’?  If this is how friends behave, what is next? ‘It may be ‘them’ now, but it might be one of ‘us’ next time.

man in blue polo shirt

Being completely honest with yourself and your children, how do you explain a scene televised in real time, whereby a cop or two or more, are savagely beating and kicking a black man for driving over the speed limit? You must explain, because your children look to you for real honest answers about life.

For some people in a certain group, they will try to convince themselves that the reason for that brutality is that this ‘victim’ was ‘resisting arrest’. Where is the empathy? the detachment of skin color from that incident that thus becomes an impartial view? A knee-jerk reaction is to blame the victim. When one can place themselves in that situation, which is and always has been difficult for whites, it is possible to see the excessive force.

The persistent problem with whites and blacks being placed as polar opposites, living in separate communities, remaining confined to their designated spaces, is exactly that. It makes it difficult to recognize the humanity of the ‘other’, and places barriers to the desire to examine or explore or imagine, looking for truth, the full experiences of the ‘other’.

Helpful is it that you and your family support your child in developing a healthy racial and cultural identity and live a vibrant multicultural life. It is important to examine your thoughts and biases and prepare your child to live in a society where race has a major impact on our daily life.

 

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